Sunday, June 7, 2009

Deadly beauty

When you're out hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains, looking for wildflowers, your eyes become accustomed to small details. In this dry, hot habitat, plants tend to be small and wiry; woody and twiggy. They are often resinous, with sticky or rough surfaces to prevent moisture from evaporating, and narrow leaves to expose as little surface area as possible to the hot sun. Flowers tend to be small - large, delicate petals don't have staying power in hot, dry winds. Plants have small tubular flowers, and hide their nectar away, saving it for the hummingbirds.

Every once in a while, though you encounter something that looks like it's in the wrong habitat, and you go WTF??

Datura wrightii is a vigorous yet ungainly plant, growing about three feet tall and sprawling out about five feet around. It has thick stems, and large thick, almost meaty grey-green leaves. Its most striking feature, however, are its flowers - huge trumpet-shaped white blossoms, lightly touched with lavender, facing up to the sky. The flowers are intensely fragrant, especially in the evening.

It looks like a petunia on drugs.

That comparison is apt. Datura wrightii is also known as Sacred Datura. Like its close cousin, datura stramonium, it is a hallucinogen, and contains atropine, hysoscomine, and scopolamine. It induces both visual and auditory hallucinations, and delirium. Other common names for these plants are Angel's Trumpet, Devil's Trumpet, crazy tea, and Locoweed.

Native Americans used it for ceremonies and rituals - prompting early Western settlers to call the plant "Indian whiskey," for its intoxicating properties. Navajo people have a saying -"Eat a little and go to sleep. Eat some more and have a dream. Eat some more and don't wake up."

Datura and was a very important ritual plant to the native Tongva and Chumash people who were the early inhabitants of these mountains. At the age of eight, Chumash boys were given a tea-like preparation of datura, called momoy, as a rite of passage into adulthood. The visions they saw while high gave them guidance for their future lives. Boys made carvings depicting their hallucinations, to keep spiritual talismans all their lives. Momoy is also the name of the goddess associated with daturas, and because it was such a powerful medicine, she is also associated with medicine and healing. She is also associated with the moon - and why not, with such striking and luminescent round white flowers?

Now, Topanga has certainly been associated with the "drug culture," but I had no idea our hippie heritage went back that far. Unhappily, abuse of datura sometimes occurs among teenagers in the American Southwest, who end up in emergency rooms.

Every part of the datura plant is toxic, including the seeds, which are contained in spikey pods that burst when dry.

Experimentation with Sacred Datura can be extremely dangerous - so don't do it! Another common name, Jimsonweed, comes from an actual incident of mass poisoning. In 1676, in the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, a group of British soldiers gathered some tender young datura leaves and made a salad of them. A 1705 historical account describes what happened next:
"they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll."
Datura's effects on the body include extreme dilation of the pupils, flushed and dry skin, the inability to pee or void one's bowels, and a rapid, irregular heartbeat. In addition to the delirium, scopolamine can temporarily blind you, causing some people to get into accidents because they can't see where they're going.

The effects sometimes don't occur until several hours after ingestion. Because of this, and because the amount of toxin in each plant varies, it's easy to overdose.

Datura wrightii isn't a common garden plant, but several other datura family members are used as ornamentals. One very common and beautiful cousin seen quite frequently in California gardens is Brugmansia suaveolens, a small tropical-looking tree called Angel's Trumpet, for its pretty melon-colored downward facing trumpets. There have been incidents of unintended datura poisoning when gardeners injest leaves of brugmansia by mistake.

This datura plant is growing beside a trail in Red Rock Canyon Park. It doesn't look so scarey, does it? But it's just another reminder that our everyday world contains hidden secrets.


mo.stoneskin said...

That photo is phenomenal.

Indian Whiskey?

Are you saying that you can ferment and drink those things? Crumbs.

Life with Kaishon said...

Oh my gosh! We don't have those around here.

Kate said...

I'm impressed! How do you KNOW all this stuff? Are you a botanist? Very interesting indeed.

Gary Rith Pottery Blog said...

Tis a pretty plant. I was hiking today and saw tons of pretty 3 leafed little ivy plants....

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

I didn't know Jimpsonweed was an hallucinogenic!



Gilly said...

That is all fascinating! I had often wondered what Datura looked like, as I have seen so many of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of the flowers. And I didn't know that Jomson weed is the same plant - Georgia O'K used both names.

Hallucinogenic plants are on all continents, and people will always experiment with them. There are "magic mushrooms" in the UK, and also very deadly ones, known as the Angel of Death or Death cap.

Can't say you haven't been warned!!

Beverly said...

Very interesting. I guess you really can't judge a beauty by its bloom.

Anonymous said...

A misplaced love of beauty is indeed a dangerous thing.